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Where Do You Shine the Spotlight?

Never mind what we see on TV. The silly hats, the banners, the t-shirts featuring vulgar slogans. Whether you lean right or left politically, the chances are good you don’t lean very far. Most of us are pretty much in the middle … maybe just a pale, pale blue or a very light red.

Political scientist Ruy Teixeira is jabbing at progressives, in particular, as he promotes a centrist manifesto, a series of statements he thinks most regular Americans would agree with. They’re the kind of beliefs that you or I might espouse if we were brave enough to talk politics over dinner.

Democrats, Teixeira says, refuse to take those sensible, pragmatic positions that would turn them into “the common-sense, normie voter party” that would win elections by a landslide. He seems bewildered—and angered—by their recalcitrance.

Teixeira and his colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute may be brilliant political specialists. He could use some help from a communication specialist. I’m happy to oblige.

Maybe you can spot the problem in these propositions:

  • America is not perfect, but it is good to be patriotic and proud of the country.
  • Discrimination and racism are bad, but they are not…
  • America benefits from the presence of immigrants … But border security is still important…
  • Racial achievement gaps are bad … However, they are not due just to racism…
  • Climate change is a serious problem, but it won’t be solved overnight.

You see it? This guy needs to let go of his but.

“But” might as well be a big fat eraser, the way it negates what came before it. And that goes for “however” too – “however” is “but” dressed in its Sunday best.

Any agreement, compliment, expression of understanding—they’re wiped out by an immediate “but”—which also tends to magnify the negativity or disagreement that comes next.

In the case of these centrist proclamations, progressives are not drawn in by a guy who brushes off the positive impact of immigration as he shifts the focus to border security.

This erasing-the-positive goes on all the time and not just in political palavering.

Start paying attention to your conversations, and I bet you’ll hear a lot of “buts” from colleagues, friends, and family.

It’s likely you’ll hear yourself saying it too. When you do, notice how thoroughly a “but” between two phrases diminishes the first one and highlights the second one.

Sometimes there is no positive.

There are people who don’t even begin by throwing you a bone. They start right out with “But …” in response to whatever you just said.

I was deep in conversation with friends about work and wanting to work and why we want to work—or don’t. Matters of opinion and feelings, in other words, not facts or data.

One of them jumped in, responding to what I’d said with, “But. But. But!”

You might guess, I bristled. I suggested, “And. And. And.” as another way to approach the conversation. That would allow for us to have divergent and equally valuable views.

My friend was having none of it. In this context, she insisted “But …” was exactly right. Because I was exactly wrong. Oy.

Any of this sounding familiar?

This is why we ought to hold the “but.”

 When “but” is the connection between two thoughts, you can replace it with something else. “And,” for instance, works nicely.

“And” – it’s also a simple, three-letter conjunction. It differs from “but” in suggesting that two assertions can co-exist and even have equal weight.

“I hear what you’re saying, and I have a different viewpoint” creates a different impression than, “I hear what you’re saying, but I have a different viewpoint.” (Not to mention, “I hear what you’re saying, but you’re totally, completely wrong.”)

We can all learn something from the improv ensembles who use “Yes, and …” to build on each other’s lines and create comedy together. They don’t dismiss what’s been said and start a whole new bit.

“Yes, and …” isn’t just for comedians. Corporate teams are learning how to communicate, collaborate and innovate using improv exercises. “Yes, and …” is the jumping-off point.

Try it yourself, next time you find yourself with a different point of view. Something like this: “Yes, that makes sense.  And, from my perspective …”

Period-pause works well too.

Sometimes I find myself connecting phrases that don’t really need to be connected.

Not only is the conjunction unnecessary, it can dilute the impact of what I’m saying. Leaving those phrases as two separate thoughts gives each of them more weight than either “but” or “and.”

“I enjoy my work, but I can’t wait for my vacation” suggests vacation’s a big deal, and I’ve given lip service to enjoying my work.

It could become “I enjoy my work, and I can’t wait for my vacation.” Better – both things are true. And, it still puts the emphasis on the upcoming break.

“I enjoy my work. I can’t wait for my vacation.” This one suggests that both parts are not just true—they’re equal. I love what I do for a living. This vacation is going to be terrific.

See what happens when you don’t string two thoughts together. Let each one stand on its own.

You might even go for the reverse effect.

Sometimes we have to deliver an unwelcome message. Trying to soften it, we say something positive first, then deliver the “bad news.” We’ve already seen how poorly that works, much of the time.

Why? The positive-BUT-negative structure diminishes, or even erases, the opening phrase. “You did a good job on the project but there’s room for improvement”?

What if you turn it around and use “but” intentionally to soften the negative instead? “There’s room for improvement … but you did a good job.”

That has a different feel, doesn’t it? Instead of “I suck” I get the feeling of, “Okay, I can get better, but then we can always get better. At least I’m doing well so far.”

“But” diminishes what comes before it and shines a spotlight on what follows it.

You might give some thought, as you’re speaking or writing, to where you want to shine that spotlight. And if you’re pitching Democrats on more moderate positions, don’t dismiss their concerns about discrimination, sexism, or climate change before going on to tell them what they should be thinking.